Be yourself“Just be yourself, you’ll do fine”. Ever heard this well-meaning advice? I gave this advice recently in an e-mail to a mentee to get her pumped up for an interview for a job she really wanted.  Just after I’d hit “send” I thought, well that could be disastrous advice. Here’s why.

This young woman is painfully shy. In practice interviews her body language says “why am I even here?”  So, really I should have told her, “Don’t be yourself. Be the interview candidate that gets the job!”  My current perspective on “just be yourself” is that it’s an over-used cliché that those of us who mentor others grandiosely repeat without understanding the unintended consequences.

Most of us don’t really know what being ourselves really means. Who we are is complex and most of our behaviors are driven from our unconscious. Here are five ways being ourselves can be dangerous:

1) Just be myself (forget what’s appropriate) – Yes well, I may have dressed inappropriately for that job interview, but I wanted them to see the “real” me – the identity I want to project as a cool, hip dude.  The real you is not the identity you want to project.  The real you knows what they want and are willing to flex to what’s appropriate in a situation.

2) Just be my (insert emotion here) self – If I’m angry or frustrated, being authentic is letting all of that emotion hang out.  It gives me license to show up and blow up. The real you isn’t whatever emotion you happen to be having. The real you acknowledges the emotion you’re having and discerns what’s appropriate.

3) Just be myself (and remain in my comfort zone) – Here’s one issue some of my mentees talk about. “I would like to get ahead, but I hate talking about myself. That’s just not me!” So let me just stay in my comfort zone. Or “I know I need to build strategic relationships to move ahead, but it feels so fake to do that”.  The real you doesn’t let “that’s just me!” stand in the way of goals important to you.

4) Just be my (insert opinion here) self – I know I need to work with Mary over in Accounting. But, I just don’t like her. Trying to be friendly with her would be so fake. That’s just not me.  We take strong stances on our opinions (Republican or Democrat, Catholic or Protestant, I like Mary or Not), and let the stances define and limit us. The real you can find the right attitude or perspective that best serves you in a given situation. 

5) Just be myself (and true to my values) – This is a tough one! So many leadership gurus tell us that being ourselves is being true to our values. However, so many tough decisions cause many of the values we have to collide.  Abraham Lincoln was open to coercing others and indirectly offering payoffs to get the 13th amendment (abolishing slavery) passed.  Yes that would be “Honest Abe”. The real you understands your personal values, wrestles through tough choices, to pursue what’s in the greater good.

We often form our identity around our beliefs, our status, our work, our values, our roles, or even the labels around gender, religion, football team, nationality, etc. Yes, these labels do define who we are, until they no longer serve us. Then the “real me” emerges as the silent witness to the labels, emotions, and perspectives – and empowers us to choose powerfully and be what serves us and the greater good in that moment.

So the next time I proudly tell myself or others to “just be yourself” I will need to pause.  How about you? Please comment and share your thoughts on the topic.

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A version of this post first appeared on my blog.

Henna Inam - Professional Photo - ColorThis article was written by Henna Inam, CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc.  Her company works with organizations to help women realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. Her clients drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Novartis, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.